The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History (Pt. 1)
by Lincoln Mitchell
Many baseball scholars and writers have sought to create their list of the one hundred greatest players in baseball histories. Joe Posnanski’s highly readable and very thorough 2021 book, The Baseball 100, is one of the best and most recent examples of that genre.
This list of the one hundred most important players in baseball history seeks to do something different - to identify the one hundred players who have had the biggest impact on the game, globally, but primarily in the USA. Impact includes the way the game is played, the ongoing story of baseball and also American culture and history.
There is some overlap between the one hundred greatest and most important players. For example, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Honus Wagner appear on both lists. However, there are some all-time greats who are not on this list, like Tris Speaker or Greg Maddux. There are also a handful of very good players who are not close to being among the top one hundred who are on the list, like Felipe Alou or Chan Ho Park, as well as some players like Glenn Burke who had very short careers and were not great players.
Importantly, like Posnanski’s list, this group is not restricted to players who appeared in MLB, so but is limited it to players who played at least part of their careers after 1900. This is a list of baseball players, not baseball people so there are no owners, labor leaders, executive and the like on the list, unless they also played the game at a high level after 1900. This means that Branch Rickey makes the list, even though his contributions were as an executive, but Marvin Miller does not because he was never a ballplayer.
I explored several ways to group the players. One idea was to rank them from one to one hundred, but I decided not to do this because I am more interested in having discussions about who should be on the list not where people belong on the list. I then thought about grouping them into categories that might include players who changed how the game was played, important figures in the Negro Leagues, cultural icons or those who had changed the economy of the game. However, I found this unworkable because many players are both. Willie Mays, was both an important part of the story of the Negro Leagues, but also a cultural icon. Similarly, Babe Ruth had a huge impact on the economics of baseball, changed how the game was played and was a massively important cultural figure.
Given all this, I decided to present the list and the comments in alphabetical order. This makes it easy to check if a particular player is on the list and also leads to ensures a good mixture, as well known players can be sandwiched around lesser known players, players from different eras are next to each other and the like.
Below are the first ten players on the list.
1. Henry Aaron-Henry Aaron was one of the greatest players in the history of the game and broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974. Aaron’s 755 home runs stood as the record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2001. That would be enough to get on this list, but Aaron is also an important player for other reasons. He was the last big leaguer to have begun his career in the Negro Leagues and served as an executive for the Braves until almost the end of his life. Lastly, during his quest to break the Babe’s record, Aaron faced a barrage of racism that took the form of epithets, hate mail and threats, so his career is at the center of the story of race and baseball.
2. Dick Allen-Dick Allen was a fearsome slugger during the decade or so from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, but he would not make most lists of the hundred or so greatest players and has fallen short of the Hall of Fame both on the BBWAA ballot and in various veterans committees. However, Allen is a very important player because he was part of the second generation of African American stars and confronted racism from fans, his teams and the media throughout his career. He was an African American whose best years coincided with the height of the Civil Rights Movement and was frustrated by the extent to which baseball remained a deeply institutionally racist business.
3. Felipe Alou-Felipe Alou was a very good player whose role in baseball history was extraordinary. He was the second Dominican born player in the big leagues-Ozzie Virgil, Sr. was the first. However, Alou was the first big leaguer who had grown up in the Dominican Republic as Virgil moved to New York with his family as a child. Alou’s career lasted from 1958-1974, but he also managed the Expos and Giants for a total of 14 years and was the first Dominican manager in the big leagues. In 1963, Alou, along with the progressive sportswriter Arnold Hano wrote an essay for Sport Magazine titled “Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights.” This essay remains a valuable document for understanding the challenges the first generation of Latino players faced. Today there are countless great Dominican stars who have had a massive influence on the game. Alou’s career, more than that of any other player, is intertwined with that.
4. Dusty Baker-Dusty Baker is one of those baseball lifers who has been part of so much of baseball history. Baker was on-deck when Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record, was the other participant, along with Glenn Burke, in what is widely believed to be the first high five, was playing left field when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in the final game of the 1977 World Series, was a coach, eating banana nut bread in the clubhouse when the World Series earthquake hit in 1989, was the manager of the Cubs during the Steve Bartman game and was the manager the Astros hired to salvage their image after the cheating scandal was revealed. Baker was more than just some Zelig like figure who was around baseball for a long time. He was a very good player on three pennant winning Dodgers teams and one World Series champion. Baker has also always been one of the most decent people in the game. He was one of the few baseball people that maintained a relationship with Glenn Burke as he was dying and during his long managerial tenure earned a reputation for mentoring many young ballplayers, just as Henry Aaron had mentored him.
5. Ernie Banks-Ernie Banks was an intriguing player. For the first part of his career he was a fine fielding shortstop and fantastic hitter with more power than any shortstop before him. Then, midway through his career, he switched to first base and was never really a great player again. On balance, Banks was a great player, but makes this list for two other reasons. First, he was one of baseball’s great ambassadors. His famous phrase “let’s play two” resonates with almost all of us who have ever stepped onto a ballfield with a glove on and tossed the ball to a teammate, whether at the big league level or just at the local sandlot. Banks is also one of a small handful of players who are deeply identified with one team. In their long history, no player deserved the moniker Mr. Cub more than Banks.
6. Yogi Berra-On Berra’s 90th birthday, I tweeted something about the event. A British colleague responded and said that he was not aware that Berra was a real person, but had just heard Americans attribute all kinds of goofy, but wise quotations to him. Berra was indeed a real person and an extraordinary baseball player. Berra would make this list because of his on the field contributions. He was at the heart of the most dominant period of any team in baseball history. During his career he played for 14 pennant winning Yankees teams and ten World Series winners. Berra was a three-time MVP who, along with Roy Campanella, changed the catcher position by marrying great defense to power hitting. Berra was also a war hero and a figure in popular culture. No baseball player, and perhaps no American, is quoted as frequently in board rooms, Tweets, academia and media than Yogi-even if he didn’t really say all those things he said.
7. Vida Blue-Vida Blue was one of the most famous colorful and cool baseball characters of the 1970s, but he was more than that. His Cy Young and MVP winning 1971 season captured attention of the country in a way that baseball still could back then. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in August of that year when he was only 22 years old. Blue was part of three World Series winning A’s teams and was later caught up in baseball’s cocaine problem in the 1980s. Blue makes this list for two reasons. First, he, like Dick Allen, was one of the second or third wave of African American players who chafed at the economic and cultural structures of the 1970s. Second, if not for Vida Blue the Giants might have left San Francisco. Blue was traded across the bay in spring training of 1978 and led the Giants to an 89 win season and a strong third place season. That team drew 1.7 million fans, at that time the second most in franchise history, and persuaded team ownership and the National League that there was a future for baseball in San Francisco.
8. Bert Blyleven-Bert Blyleven is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball history. He spent most of his career pitching for mediocre teams out of the media spotlight at a time when wins were still the criteria by which pitchers were judged. He racked up 283 career wins, but never reached the magic 300 mark. Those 283 wins are still the most by any MLB pitcher born outside the US, making Blyleven the answer to a great trivia question. Blyleven is an important player because after he retired, he became the test case for using advanced metrics to reevaluate players. When more modern measures like WAR, FIP and ERA+ are applied, Blyleven emerges not as a good pitcher who played for a long time, as most saw him during his long career, but as an all-time great. His election to the Hall of Fame in 2011 was one of the first major triumphs of the new metrics.
9. Barry Bonds-Barry Bonds is the only player other than Ozzie Smith to steal at least 500 bases and win at least eight Gold Gloves, but it is not his abilities as a speedy defender that put him on this list. Bonds is one of the most hated, controversial and best players in the history of the game. He became the face of the PED era, in large part because of his surly personality. Over the years, MLB and the baseball writers have sent a message that steroids are largely ok if the player is nice to the media, but Bonds was not nice to the media. Bonds was sure Hall of Famer before he ever dabbled in PEDs, but when he started using PEDs became so good that he made a mockery of the game. At a time when many players, including many of the pitchers Bonds homered against, were using PEDs, Bonds was on another level. You cannot tell the story of PEDs, or have a serious conversation about who the best player ever was, without mentioning Barry Bonds.
10. Lou Boudreau-Lou Boudreau is the only Jewish manager, and also the most recent player-manager, to win a World Series, but that is not why he makes this list. Today, it seems like most teams shift against most players, but that was not always the case. Until very recently, shifts were only used against left-handed sluggers who were pull hitters. Lou Boudreau was the first manager ever to use the shift, using it when he was managing the Indians against Ted Williams and the Red Sox in 1946. Back then, the shift was an oddity, but Boudreau was just a few decades ahead of his time.